Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category


This is my “definitive” article on Star Wars, the film that made me fall in love with science fiction in the first place. My mum took me to see it in 1978, when I was five. I still vaguely remember the trip. Apparently I talked all the way through. In the weeks before I drew an awful lot of TIE fighters at school, and was very envious of the kids who had seen it the first time around. I got some Star Wars figures before I saw the film. In following years, I built up quite a collection of Star Wars toys, but was forced to sell them after I returned from living in Poland as I was flat broke. This initial handful, however, I kept and passed them on to Benny 35 years later.

This article was originally published as part of Death Ray #21‘s “Time Trap”, which looked at the year 1977.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, science fiction was about to change forever…

In 1977 the most influential science fiction film of all time came to cinemas. George Lucas’ Star Wars has had such a large influence on the genre it is hard to quantify. Naturally, space opera movies became a dime a dozen in the 1980s, but it had effects as diverse as speeding the restructuring of the way Hollywood financed its movies, introducing the ‘worn’ future, heralding breakthroughs in special effects that were to transform cinema, and cementing the idea of the Summer event movie. Some of these seismic shifts stemmed from 1975’s Jaws, the first modern blockbuster, but Star Wars accelerated them.

Lucas conceived of Star Wars sometime round 1971, when he wrote an outline called ‘The Journal of the Whills’. Some of the ideas that were to later feature in the Star Wars movies were present, including the Jedi, but many were not, including the story. The structure of the first trilogy, even the idea that there were to be more movies, was not present initially, and the reconception of Star Wars as but one part of the life story of Anakin Skywalker, fallen Jedi Knight, did not occur until much later (Lucas has often said that he wrote a massive treatment, then decided to concentrate on the first third as it was too big. There is little evidence for this in Lucas’ drafts). This initial treatment, about the son of a famous fighter pilot who is training to be the ‘padawaan’ of Mace Windy, a famed ‘Jedi-Bendu’ was described as too complex to understand, so Lucas started again, this time basing his story on Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Initially, the Star Wars was little more than an SF remake of Kurosawa’s classic, but over time and four drafts it would move further and further away from it, incorporating elements from more science-fictional sources and fairytale, crucially reintroducing the wizard-like Jedi, whose struggle with their own instincts was to form the thematic core of the entire universe. The final draft, with input from Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, was finished 1 January, 1976. Throughout the writing process the story changed, Luke’s character turned from a 60-year-old general into a dwarf. Right up until filming commenced, Lucas was toying with the idea of making him a woman. Han Solo was supposed to be a green alien with gills, C3PO a car-dealer type… Star Wars was not conceived as a saga, but more as a loosely defined universe inspired by Saturday serials, Japanese cinema and World War II movies, whose story was subject to revision right to the very last minute. There will never be a definitive version. The genesis of the film is steadily sliding into the realms of apocrypha, with the imperfect human memory the main culprit, aided by deliberate misdirection here and there. George Lucas has made many contradictory statements about the conception of the film, while stories from different people involved do not entirely match up. Was Alec Guinness as uncomfortable on set as he always maintained, requesting his own death so he could stop saying such “rubbish lines”, or was the characters’ death down to Lucas, and Guinness mostly happy at work as the director maintains? Was David Prowse dubbed because there were no black characters, as he maintains, or was it because he, like many of the other dubbed actors in the film, sounded too British? This are but a couple of examples of the many stories surrounding the film’s production, alternative versions of which can be found in numerous media.

What is certain is that it could so easily have not happened. Universal and Paramount passed on the film, seeing it as high-risk and high budget. Alan Ladd Jnr at Fox, however, saw promise in Lucas and the concept, and took it on.

The complex production was tense, and for the crew involved, bewildering. Stories about these difficulties include the crew members ridiculing the production, extras whispering ‘wanker’ at Mark Hamill as he walked past the crowd at the medal giving climax, Lucas tearing out his hair at endless British tea breaks, and union interference with the nascent ILM being seen off with a showy display of computer controlled camera work. No-one had ever made a film like this before, and many made fun of the avalanche of outlandish names that accompanied it. ILM were brilliant but disorganised, and spent half their budget on four shots Lucas rejected. The actors complained about the dialogue and about Lucas’ direction (“Faster” and “More intense” were his sole phrases). Lucas argued with cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, who thought the young director was overstepping his bounds in requesting specific shot set ups. Accidents dogged the production – on the first day of shooting in Tatouine, the area of Tunisia standing in for Tatooine, there were the worst torrential downpours in 50 years. Props didn’t work, and Anthony Daniels’ C3PO costume broke and speared his left foot.

Though Star Wars was fairly expensive for its day, Lucas had ambitions much bigger than his budget. Money was tight. He was unhappy with the effects, the costumes and props. Time ran out. Reaching crisis point as shooting fell two weeks behind schedule, Fox gave Lucas an ultimatum: wrap production in a week, or Star Wars will be cancelled. Splitting the crew into three teams, Lucas scraped over the deadline.

Scheduled for release at Christmas of 1976, there were further problems in Star Wars’ post production process. The initial cut was disastrous, prompting Lucas to replace the editor. ILM struggled, Mark Hamill (Luke) was involved in a car crash that made reshoots impossible, while an early screening of the incomplete film to Lucas’ film buddies was unsuccessful with only Stephen Spielberg enjoying the film. The release was postponed until May of the following year.

But it was now that things began to come together. A new edit gave the film its famous pace, Lucas spliced together a load of dogfights from war films to inspire the effects house, while both Ben Burt’s innovative, organic sound design and John Barry’s bombastic martial score, recorded in just 12 days, brought the film to life.

Star Wars‘ final budget was driven from $8 million to $11 million. Lucas was a nervous wreck, suffering from hypertension and exhaustion. He was thus gratified by the response of the Fox brass – they all loved it, and one broke down in tears. The film was a difficult sell to reluctant cinemas. Fox threatened to withhold the more eagerly anticipated movie The Other Side of Midnight if cinemas did not show Lucas’ film.

Star Wars was, as we know, a huge hit, so successful that 20th Century Fox’s share value doubled in weeks. Alone, Star Wars has earned more than $700million dollars in its lifetime. The estimated lifetime takings of the franchise it spawned, merchandising and all, is put at around $20billion.

The cultural impact of Star Wars has been immense, not least in its refocusing of Hollywood on spectacle after a decade of thoughtful, arty films. Some have called this a betrayal, others a re-engagement with the audience. Either way, effects-heavy thrill-rides became the default setting for big-screen success.

The first SF blockbuster’s effect on the genre was complex. It is arguable Star Wars destroyed the credibility of science fiction at a time when it was just becoming an excepted form. Book companies redirected their efforts toward juvenilia, and the more cerebral cinematic SF efforts of the 60s and 70s gave way to numerous Star Wars imitations. Although a wave of great SF films trailed Star Wars’ success, they were outnumbered by cheap, unimaginative copycats. Such movies as Space hunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone did much to earn SF its status as a pariah genre in the 90s. When you hear of critics dismissing SF, it’s not Alien or The Terminator or Mad Max they’re thinking of, but the bad sets, ropey effects and cardboard characters of TV and straight-to-video Star Wars rip-offs. To them, ‘science fiction’ stinks of the unsophisticated mindset of the nursery.

But this was but a reactive dip, one SF has come out of now, in the main, and we can thank Star Wars also for SF’s renaissance, for the creative types who fill our screens and bookshelves with weekly wonders had their minds’ eyes opened wide by Star Wars as children. And that, dear readers, includes your friendly correspondents here at Death Ray.

The Expanded Universe

It wasn’t the films that made Lucas his fortune, but millions upon millions of tiny plastic toys…

When Lucas negotiated with Alan Ladd Jnr. for his fee, he settled on a relatively modest sum of $150,000 in return for 40% of the merchandising rights and rights to any sequels. It is this canny deal that has made Lucas a billionaire, and allowed him to operate largely outside the studio system for much of his career.

At the time, Hollywood made little money from merchandising. The days of themed Happy Meals and action figure toy lines were ushered in by Star Wars. Fox provided little direct marketing support for the film, leaving marketing director Charles Lippincott to find other ways to publicise the movie. He sold the toy rights to Kenner (who invented the three and three-quarter inch action figure size still popular today for the film). Over 300 million of these figures were sold between 1977 and 1984, but Kenner initially under-produced. The toys were so popular that Kenner rapidly ran out of stock round Christmas of ’77, prompting them to fill shops with empty boxes containing a promissory note. The back orders took three months to fulfil.

Lippincott also looked to print media to provide a push to the movie, negotiating a pre-release comic adaptation with Marvel. A novelisation of the film was published under Lucas’ name, although it was actually written by Alan Dean Foster. Titled Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, it was based on the screenplay and released six months before the film. The book interestingly contains several minor departures from the book, including the cut Tosche station scenes filmed for the movie’s opening, and differences in detail here and there.

But it is the book that followed, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, also by Foster, where things get interesting. This novel was intended to form the basis of a cheap sequel should Star Wars perform poorly. When the film became a smash hit, this idea was dropped. Instead, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, along with Star Wars comic issue 7, formed the basis of Star Wars‘ enormous Expanded Universe.

Many popular SF franchises have Expanded Universes, but Star Wars is among the largest of all, rivalled in scale only by Star Trek‘s. It encompasses books, comics, roleplaying and video games, toys, audio dramas, cartoons, and TV shows, telling stories in the Star Wars universe from 10,000 years in the past until 100 years in the future (Lucas, intending to one day make a prequel trilogy, barred authors from delving into the history of the Empire, Anakin, or Palpatine). Like most such things in the genre, these stories are not considered canon, and yet they have had a profound influence on the film series itself, with many characters and locations working their way into the movie series.

The Star Wars expanded universe is remarkably consistent, although not immune to shifts in the story and retconning. This consistency can be credited to West End Games. Their RPG products, beginning in 1987, were so detailed they were often sent out to other licensees as reference materials, leading to a situation where West End found itself, in later years, producing supplements based on stories which had been generated with the help of their products.

After the release of Return of the Jedi, Star Wars fever abated somewhat, though the Expanded Universe remained a lucrative industry. With the release of Timothy Zahn’s Admiral Thrawn trilogy in 1991, the acquisition of the Star Wars comic book license by Dark Horse and renewed speculation about further films, it really took off, paving the way for the return of the franchise to the big screen.

Did you know?

The 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special was the first televisual outing for the expanded universe. A collection of musical skits, comedy segments and unused footage from Star Wars, it featured all the main cast in a story loosely centred on Chewbacca’s return home for Life Day (Wookie Christmas), and the struggle he and Han Solo have as they try to get back to the Wookie world of Kashyyyk. Through the medium of television watched by Chewie’s son Lumpawarrump, we get a musical interlude from Jefferson Starship, a 10-minute cartoon about one of Chewie’s earlier adventures, as well as cameos from various other Wars’ stars, such as Luke, who is shown having mechanical trouble with his X-Wing fighter. This all takes place as Imperial forces search Chewie’s tree house, so there’s an air of totalitarian absurdity to it.

Aside from the cartoon, which introduced Boba Fett, the Holiday Special is widely disliked by fans and those involved, with Lucas himself being particularly unhappy with the show. (he said once he wished he could hunt down every copy. It has only ever been screened once, and has never been released in any home entertainment format. Bootleg copies, however, can be had for the right price. We’d never condone illegal activity, but it is one of the most deliciously bad pieces of television ever to have been made.


This review originally appeared in Death Ray #20. Here’s my review of season one also.

2009/472mins

Show: FOUR STARS

Extras: TWO STARS

Directors: Catherine Morshead, Ben Bolt, Nicole Taylor, Philip John

Writers: Mathew Graham, Ashley Pharoah, Julie Rutterford, Jack Lothian, Mark Greig,

Starring: Philip Glenister, Keeley Hawes, Dean Andrews, Marshall Lancaster, Montserrat Lombard

SPOILER!!! Eighties cop time travel sequel show comes to an interesting end. Be warned, we detail just what that end is at the conclusion of this review.

Ashes to Ashes continues to show us how interesting the whole Life on Mars conceit can be, even if this rock solid idea was sorely shaken by the far less accomplished Life on Mars US. Thankfully back in Blighty there are no surprise spaceships or dodgy puns in season two of Ashes to Ashes, sequel show to the original LoM, but a taut police corruption arc, and a pair of surprising time travel twists. As always with our superior domestic product, all aspects are well served: procedural, temporal and interpersonal. Way to go BBC, I for one won’t complain about my license fee.

It was not always so. The initial run of Ashes lapsed far too frequently into outright pastiche, not only of the decade where shot-in-the-head cop Alex Drake found herself (the 1980s are an easy target if ever there was one) but also of Life on Mars. It rallied somewhat towards the end of series one, if only because Alex’s mystery through-plot delivered a literally explosive coup de grace. Lead Keeley Hawes came under some fire too, though not in these pages. We’ve always found her portrayal of Alex entirely convincing, both in terms of her character, and the interplay between her and Gene Hunt (Phillip Glenister), especially with the element of sexual frisson unsurprisingly absent from Hunt’s earlier relationship with Sam Tyler. This foundation is pleasingly built upon in series two. Although this outing’s time-travel mystery is not so powerful as that in the first, it nearly is, the addition of an ‘Evil Leaper’ style counterpart to Alex’s good girl cop intriguing. Although this being Ashes, naturally nothing is quite as it seems.

Throughout this second run, we see growing roles for the other coppers. Ray (Andrews), Shaz (Lombard) and Chris (Lancaster) have plenty to do. Both the other carry overs from Mars become far more rounded, with Ray proving to be surprisingly complex, and Chris surprisingly compromised. Indeed, there are several others in Hunt’s little band (being a DCI he naturally needs more than just the three lackeys). Viv (Geff Francis) moves more and more out of a supporting role, while some of the other faces get so much screen time they’ll have to give them names and a few lines at this rate. It’s an ensemble show in the making.

Including LoM we’re four series in, and the franchise could perhaps be showing signs of flagging. The ultimate twist of series two presenting Alex with a similar choice to that which Sam Tyler faced, with a side order of double-dealing mystery. So here’s the spoiler. Alex is back in the present because she’s in a coma in the past, getting flashes of that past. Yeah, sure, it’s all a bit ‘Ahaha!’, a reflexive cheat, its squaring of circles almost unsporting. Still, with this show, it’s almost a certainty they’ll do something delightful with it.

Extras: A 30 minute making of, and an ’80s quiz. Not much, really.


This review comes from Death Ray #21. It is of the DVD release of the time.

2009/£19.99/156mins/18

Film FOUR STARS Extras: TWO STARS

Director: Zack Snyder

Writer: David Hayter & Alex Tse, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (graphic novel)

Starring: Billy Crudup, Maliln Ackerman, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan

Alan Moore’s masterpiece makes it onto DVD, via cinema.

Watchmen is the quintessential divisive film. Slavishly faithful to the comic upon which it is based, this is not your fluid, modern day capture-characters-essence-on-screen-and-go-its-own-way adaptation. This is not just any comic, of course, but the comic which, supposedly, heralded the maturity of the form. To many reared on the four-colour milk of comics-dom Watchmen is the Pride and Prejudice or the Moby Dick of the strips. According to such fans, to not be faithful to it (and director Zack Snyder definitely falls into this camp) would miss the point of filming it at all. But this is cinema, the fields provided by the big screen are smaller than those the comic book allows the imagination, and compromises have been made. (more…)


Avilion
Avilion by Robert Holdstock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A review published originally in Death Ray #21.

FIVE STARS

Robert Holdstock/Gollancz

Robert Holdstock has a special place in the hearts of serious fantasy lovers. Unlike the majority of the books nestled in the fantasy section of your local Waterstones, Holdstock owes little to Tolkien, but hearkens back to the tradition from which Tolkien himself sprang: our common mythic heritage. It’s a branch of the fantasy family tree that bore most of the fruit before the good professor set pen to paper, but which has since been almost shaded out by others trying to mimic what Tolkien achieved, more’s the pity.

Most of Holdstock’s books take place within Ryhope Wood, a three square-mile patch of ancient forest in Herefordshire. A fragment of the greenwood that once covered all of Europe, there’s deep magic within its bounds. It is semi-sentient, paradoxically huge inside, and can conjure legendary beings out of the minds of the humans who dwell near its boundaries. These ‘myth imagos’ gave the name to Holdstock’s first Ryhope book, Mythago Wood, published to great acclaim in 1984. Holdstock has revisited the wood many times since then, but Avilion is the first direct sequel to that first tale.

Stephen Huxley, Mythago Wood’s protagonist, has been living deep in Ryhope with a mythago of Guiwenneth, a celtic archetype whose historic personage gave rise to the legends of Guinevere and others, and who he claimed back from death. They have two half-human children, Yssobel and Jack. Jack yearns to experience the world his father left behind, Yssobel is being drawn into ever greater affinity with the magic of the wood and has unwittingly called Jack’s murderous brother, Christian, back into being. This so upsets her mother (whom Christian kidnapped, raped and murdered many years earlier) she departs on a quest for revenge. The dismayed Yssobel sets out to bring her mother home, changing all their lives forever.

The narrative of each successive Ryhope book has grown more impenetrable, like a wild thicket. The questions of who calls whom into existence and whether any of it has any kind of objective reality weave a tricksy glamour about Holdstock’s stories. But these are not books of easy answers, and his interlaying of psychology, myth, and ontology with raw emotion, sometimes falteringly conveyed in verse, conveys the messiness of real life. Like real life, like the bark of the trees he so loves, Holdstock shows us the roughness of magic and nature, bound up in blood and filth. Avilion is penetratingly honest, there is no idyll to be had, and happiness comes with its fair share of suffering, loss, and self-delusion. Wisdom in Holdstock’s world is bought with pain.

It doesn’t really matter that the reader is left struggling for sense on occasion, Holdstock’s ethereal prose is all encompassing, his use of language so affective that it swallows you whole. He’s one of the few authors capable of not only showing another world, but actively transporting to it. He writes of love and death in a shyly awkward way, a poet wrapped up in the privacy of his word-wood. Coming out of the end of one of his novels is to emerge from this private world feeling like you’ve been living another life, as fragmentary, chaotic and disordered and as bound up by story as a real one. It’s an immersive experience that few other authors can match, though the stories sometimes make as little sense as the dreams they resemble.

Avilion is not quite as potent as some of the other entries in the series, but it offers much as Jack and Yssobel attain adulthood in very different ways, and discover what ‘home’ really means. Good fantasy, like myth should transform. Much fantasy, despite its wars and intrigues, is really about maintaining the status quo, its vacuum-sealed kingdoms and shallow-worn paths from kitchen boy to king providing a cocoon of comfort for the reader. Holdstock cocoons you alright, but his twiggy bowers offer little comfort; his kings are the real deal, plucked bloody and raging from myth, all are remembered for their suffering as much as their success. It’s arguable that all myth and great fantasy, all great literature, even, employs loss as an engine for transformation. Ryhope Wood continues to provide both.

Did you know?

Avilion is the name Alfred Tennyson used for Avalon in his poem, Morte D’Arthur.

View all my reviews


From Death Ray #21.

2009/90 mins/18

THREE STARS

Director: Tommy Wirkola

Writers: Stig Frode Henriksen and Tommy Wirkola

Starring: Vegar Hoel, Charlotte Frogner, Orjan Gamst, Stig Frode Henriksen, Jeppe Laursen, Evy Kasseth Rosten, Jenny Skavlan. Ane Dahl Torp, Lasse Valdal

Norwegian horror comedy(ish) that makes a bid for The Evil Dead territory and fails, though it deserves a distinction for effort.

Horror, what charms do you so possess that brings youthful directors flocking to you so? This is another entry in to the grand logbook of low-budget cinema, a passable though not excellent passage.

As usual: A small band (medical students) go on holiday (a remote mountain cottage) where their mobile phones don’t work. They encounter an unsettling old dude who tells them of monsters (the revenants of Nazi soldiery), said monsters then show up to party when the students unearth a box of their gold.

Peppered with good gore effects, a handful of jokes and some nicely staged action, Dead Snow is not without its moments. An opening sequence featuring one student chased across the snowy night has brio charmed from nothing thanks to some quick editing and the amusing application of Peer Gynt, for example.

But it’s rather let down by a bunch of characters who, while not interchangeable, have precious little to differentiate them (credit, though, to the actors, who at least work hard with what they’re given). And the script, despite cleaving determinedly to the standard horror formula detailed above, contains several missteps that could easily have been rectified.

Want to hear them? Okay, among them are: Why is the old giffer staying on the mountains if he is so sure there is evil there? Why has the box of gold the students find not been discovered before? If the gold is the catalyst, why are the monsters roaming about before it is discovered? Finally, a lurid story of Nazi occult experiments could have explained away why our German pals are running about like zombies, as the story stands we don’t get a reason for their corporeality. (The recent British film Outpost, also with a Hitlerian foe, managed that problem very well). Still, it’s a promising debut, we just recommend an extra set of eyes pass over the next story that pops out of Mr. Mirkola’s head.


A decidedly odd end to this strange remake. From Death Ray #19. Read more about the show here.

TWO AND A HALF STARS

The US version on Life on Mars, cancelled, takes a rather literal turn. SPOILER ALERT! We really blow the whole thing here. Meanwhile, back in 1982 DI Drake has a new set of problems to tackle.

Either the finale of the US Life on Mars is a stunningly daring piece of television, or it’s bollocks. Jury’s out. If you plan to watch it, turn away now, because there is a gargantuan spoiler on its way…

…now. Okay, so the final episode has Sam under pressure. His younger self has been kidnapped by his criminal dad Vic. Meanwhile, the mysterious phone voice that has been bugging him throughout the series gives Sam three tasks to complete if he wants to go home. Vic is confronted and shot dead as he’s about to kill Sam, after revealing that he knows Sam is his son. Annie ‘No Nuts’ is promoted to detective, she and Sam kiss. Sam tells the phone voice to get stuffed, because he likes 1973. This transpires to be the final task, and Sam is returned home… to 2035! He’s been on board a spaceship to Mars all along. What?!

We’ll be honest here and say we did not see that coming.

Sam’s been in a VR dream for the trip to Mars. He chose to be a cop in 2008, but the ship was rocked by a meteor storm, so Windy (who is actually the ship’s computer) had to tinker with his adventure, er, by sending him to 1973. The space probe that Sam kept seeing is a ship-board minibot. The ‘gene hunt’ is that for Martian ‘genetic DNA ‘ (um, is there another kind?). Annie is in command of the mission, and Keitel turns out to be Major Tom(!), Sam’s dad.

No doubt the writers will one day come clean as to whether or not they planned this from the beginning. For now, in favour of this being the intended denouement is the regular appearance of the space probe, Ray calling Sam ‘spaceman’ consistently throughout and young Sam being fascinated by space. On the other hand, if the references to hospitals and inference of angels are red herrings, they are members of a suspiciously coherent shoal. The cast make the most unlikely band of astronauts ever, while NASA would never put a warring father and son on board a long-term mission together (Sam’s time in the ’70s is sold to us as a big metaphor for filial/ paternal conflict). It makes very little sense, especially with all the scenes where Sam is not present (who’s experiencing them, eh?). The tasks are weak. There’s a flashforward to 2010, out of place alongside the ultimate denouement, and lots of silly justifications for the slang used throughout. Most egregious is the feeble “I was supposed to be in 2008″ explanation for why Sam’s so au fait with the period, and that nearly breaks the concept. Wry Bowie quotes are shoehorned in quick succession to foreshadow the ending, only for Elton John to sing us out. As you’d expect, most of the plot points from earlier episodes are left guttering, like, well, candles in the wind.

It’s a brittle resolution, but to say they had to wrap it up all of a sudden, it does the job. A decidedly odd end to a mostly inferior remake.